Engaging with difficult conversations (Dorit)

My department has always welcomed social justice curriculum and we all teach mainstream media critically. As the coordinator of our graduate program, I have organized a series of training sessions for teaching assistants, including sessions on diversity, decolonization, accessibility and ethics. A guest speaker from the Human Rights Office joined us on zoom to discuss engaging with difficult conversations. To her and my surprise, we realized very quickly that the difficult conversations we usually engage with in our classroom have quietly slipped away from the syllabi. I started asking my colleagues about the changes in such content as a result of teaching in a new form, and it turned out that most have self-censored, leaving difficult material out, since there is no proper space to process together, unpack, debrief, and build a shared criticality. When students are left alone with video lectures, readings and assignments, even lame content, such criticality is sometimes misunderstood.

Furthermore, Indigenous wisdom and cosmology is learned and experienced in-relations to others, both human and non-human. The circle is an incredibly important place where stories are shared and knowledge is obtained.  Teaching via zoom, especially asynchronously cannot offer us circles. It supports an individual student, a direct and singular recipient of knowledge, in at best a two-way exchange. A colleague teaching post-production told me she meets 8-10 times with each student on each assignment!  This platform is the “best” example of neoliberal practices.  In this format, the goal of unsettling/decolonizing our classrooms will likely mostly have to wait.  Some measures can be taken, such as co-facilitation of live sessions, but the full-class circle of learners, the emphasis on process, on the magic that happens in the classroom is lost.

What is gained is a more intense, and highly effective group support structure. In my experience most students take time to engage with their peers in meaningful ways. For each stage of the process in the Honours thesis course (toolkit; proposal; mid-year presentation of progress) students have two deadlines: first they post to a discussion board in a group of 4-5 students, where they all comment on each other’s work, and I offer comments and responses to the comments as well. Then the students have a chance to revise and resubmit for grading. This format allows them to integrate, respond to, and consider the criticism offered. I am especially impressed with the responses to students who are making films about sensitive issues: racism faced by Asian students during the pandemic; mental health; the experience of international students; etc. Group members seem able to respond with both empathy, critical suggestions, and a recognition of their own place in the social structure. I realize now, that difficult conversations have not disappeared altogether from the course, but have migrated, emerging organically from the work students are producing, and met with openness by the other students.
Rethinking production exercises
and decolonization (Liz)

Place-based assignments have been a helpful way to encourage students who have been “stuck at home” to get outside and explore. They were also a prompt for me to re-think how I want to teach moving images.
For years I have been teaching a year- long undergraduate moving images production course. This last semester I was part of a working group with a mandate to “decolonize our curriculum.” The invitation was a chance to rethink our teaching in the zoom company of Donna Kahérakwas Goodleaf, director of decolonizing curriculum and pedagogy at Concordia University. My first challenge was to adapt my “place-based portrait” into an opportunity to engage critically with the concept of land acknowledgements. In previous years, I used the exercise to evaluate students’ skills around shot composition, coverage and editing and to engage in a class-wide collaborative initiative. For example, last year, pre-COVID-19, my students and I created a collection of two-minute “tree portraits” that the city of Montreal now uses as part of a tree Canopy awareness campaign.
This semester I renamed the exercise, “Place and Counter Narratives” and asked students to explore a public site they care about or visit frequently. They had to observe, research and document the history “on view,” and reflect on what was missing. The next step was to insert a short text into their videos to create a counter narrative. At the time, Montreal was erupting with protests targeting sites such as the Sir John A. Macdonald monument. Macdonald is Canada’s first prime minister and he played a major role in instituting the residential school system.

The exercise prompted meaningful conversations about how parks, monuments and signs perpetuate logics and inequities, and we had meaningful conversations about the role of land acknowledgements. The exercise also offered a chance to share and foreground indigenous artists such as Rebecca Belmore and Kent Monkman who have staged counter narratives in their own work. While COVID-19 prevented me from engaging in a collaborative place-based assignment, the effectiveness of using a personal place-prompt to encourage students to get out of the house and to re-think public and personal history was effective and one that I will refine and repeat.

 Opening the class to the world (Brenda)

Large enrollment courses for me have always been a bit about performance and putting on a “show.” While most weeks I’m posting my impeccably designed audio-visual presentations, for some weeks I’ve mixed it up by posting an interview with a filmmaker or by organizing a high-profile webinar with filmmakers, producers and creators that is open to the whole university and the public. We have completed three so far: one on BIPOC producers, one on Black cinemas in Canada and one on Indigenous women creators, which has been co-presented with ImagineNATIVE, a Toronto based international indigenous film and media festival. These webinars have been a wonderful opportunity to think about relations and community building as a core part of film culture in this country and to hear personal and discursive engagements with many of the issues we have been exploring around Indigenous sovereignty and racial and cultural diversity. Collaborating with ImagineNATIVE opened our classroom to a wider public and we ended up with a large audience of 300 people. The ‘liveness’ of the webinar created a buzz and involved people who would never venture into a university classroom.

Indigenous Women’s Cinema in Canada Webinar, November 24th, 2020. Top Row: Jamie Whitecrow, Moderator, Current MFA student at York University, Niki Little, Artistic Director ImagineNATIVE, Lisa Jackson. Bottom Row: Tasha Hubbard, Amanda Strong.

Liveness and peer support (Liz)

My favorite moments in a production class are often the rough cut screenings. As the lights go down, silence fills the room and students nervously anticipate the feedback of their peers. In a remote classroom how do we simulate the energy of that moment, the liveness, or what Bell Hooks calls the eros of the classroom.  Fostering remote collaboration or support has been a challenge that extends beyond a feedback session and is an ongoing concern. This semester I piloted a range of strategies to facilitate peer engagement—from asking students to comment in zoom chats to organizing cluster screenings with speed dating features—and I learned a few things about online possibilities for peer review.
While I maintain my allegiance to a shared physical event in a big auditorium, I have noticed that it’s often a handful of students who have the confidence to offer feedback publicly. And if there are many projects, some students get short-changed in a large feedback session. This semester I used Microsoft TEAMS as a platform to organize small peer support groups. I am not promoting this software platform per se, but it’s what I had access to and I began by speaking about the ways that software companies profit from disaster. The groups met regularly to discuss their work at different stages of production, from proposal evaluation to rough cut.

I asked each group to assign a facilitator and a notetaker to ensure even distribution of feedback.  During class time, we used a pre-formatted shared document for students to post feedback in a live format so I could see their work without visiting each breakout room. I used methods like Liz Lerman’s critical response process to reinforce the art and value of giving great feedback. While it was not the same experience as past semesters, students confirmed that these peer sessions were one of the best aspects of the class, and I will continue to explore ways to cultivate the kind of solidarity that production courses can create.