If you are a professor of a certain age, you may have had the experience that I had in my first semester of teaching. I asked, “Who’s seen Norma Rae?” (I wanted to use it to illustrate that working in a mill causes hearing loss.) “Who’s seen Young Frankenstein?” (I wanted to highlight the Abby Normal brain.) The response from students was “Huh?” Today’s students haven’t seen the same movies most of us have, and they don’t seem a generation inclined to watch old, classic movies. A movie in black and white? Forget it.
The fact is, though, that students today can be shown the relevance of classic films, and while experiencing these works they can have thrilling revelations that bridge directly to what they are studying. Film studies, of course, have been around as curricular staples for decades, but every discipline can be augmented by the creative use of movies, beginning with liberal arts and extending even to the sometimes-forbidding “hard” sciences.
A colleague of mine in the English department frequently shows a BBC production of Oedipus Rex to teach the argumentative essay. He stages a mock trial of Oedipus, in which the student jury must vote on the king’s innocence or guilt. He reports that rousing class discussions invariably ensue, not only among future English majors but also among current linebackers (“The dude is going down!”). The same professor uses the 1960 version of Inherit the Wind (Spencer Tracy and Frederick March) as the basis of a longer research essay, leading the students to a comparison of the film and the actual 1925 trial in Dayton. He watches with the joy good teachers always feel when a revelatory moment occurs. “But the real John Scopes wasn’t arrested at all! Hollywood is lying!”
As a communication sciences and disorders (CSD) professor, I use classic movies whose main characters have communication problems. I show one each semester, outside of class, for a Cinema CSD experience. To date, Cinema CSD has aired The King’s Speech (stuttering), The Miracle Worker (deafness and blindness), and Rain Man (autism). Although a few students had seen the more modern The King’s Speech, none had seen the original, Academy Award-winning performances of Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke in the black-and-white The Miracle Worker or Dustin Hoffman’s Academy Award-winning performance for Best Actor in the Best Picture of 1988, Rain Man. In the reflective essays about the movies my students wrote for extra credit, many noted they were astonished by how much they enjoyed a movie made in black and white.
The question remains, though, could you find a film relevant to the content to show in every course? I can’t say for sure, but I have to feel that the answer is yes. History? What teacher would not want to show Gettysburg or any of the painstakingly made (The Longest Day) World War II movies? Or even the Kenneth Branagh Henry V, with its wondrous reconstruction of the Battle of Agincourt? German? What about The White Rose, which depicts the execution of University of Munich students found distributing anti-Hitler exhortations in 1943?
But chemistry and physics? Of course chemistry and physics! In fact, especially chemistry and physics, because too often students see science as merely concatenations of numbers and symbols rather than statements about, and we hope improvements upon, the human condition. Films (Dr. Erlich’s Magic Bullet, A Beautiful Mind, Madame Curie) are in a unique position to remedy this problem and provide the kind of fusion between science and humanities that some writers (C.P. Snow, The Two Cultures) have been advocating for decades.
And so, if you haven’t tried to connect to your students through classics of cinema, you may want to give it a try—but don’t forget the popcorn!
Pamela Reese, Indiana University - Purdue University Fort Wayne, Indiana, firstname.lastname@example.org