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December 29, 2005

"The American Film" -- Using WebCT To Author Digital Texts


Over the past few years, more and more professors have begun using course management software such as WebCT or Blackboard (and, increasingly, the non-commercial and open-source Sakai) to organize their syllabi, place assignments online, and create online forums for class discussion. In some cases, WebCT courses are designed so comprehensively that they come to resemble digital course texts, including a substantial amount of original pedagogical material. One example of this is The American Film, a course taught by Thomas Valasek at Raritan Valley Community College that has been recognized this year as an Exemplary Course by in an annual WebCT competition (a description of the class and guest access are available here through the WebCT site).

Valasek, who uses WebCT as a distance-learning platform, has incorporated his own lectures and film analyses into the site, and included relevant film clips which are annotated by his own voiceover narration. This means that students are able to access unique content through the site, instead of using WebCT merely as a portal to download information authored elsewhere. It also means that Valasek has managed to create an online-only film course that give students the feeling of being present when the professor is walking them through scenes of a film -- perhaps the most important part of a lecture-based film class.

The American Film introduces students to American cinema through a discussion of the narrative and visual style of Hollywood movies. After a section on the culture of Hollywood (centered around the film The Player), and on narrative and visual style in film (centered respectively on American Beauty and On The Waterfront), Valasek focuses on four popular film genres: romantic comedy, the western, science fiction, and film noir. Students are expected to watch a series of films on their own and to use the lectures and discussions on the course site as a launching point for their own research projects. In each case, Valasek pairs a classic example of the genre with a contemporary adaptation, with the expectation that students might be able to draw on their familiarity with the more recent film to help with their interpretations of the older work.


An example of Valasek's voiceover work can be found in his discussion of the crucial scene from On The Waterfront when the priest Father Barry tries to convince Terry Malloy, the films protagonist, to confess to his fiancee that he had helped organize a mob hit on his own brother. As the clip plays, Valasek's narration asks us to pay attention the metaphorical use of a high metal fence in the background: "Terry is fenced in here; he's unable to decide what he wants to do and what the right thing to do is. We can see that the fence has him cornered in the shot, but also emotionally he is fenced in."

As the scene shifts, Valasek continues to describe in detail both the visual and aural techniques used by Kazan to convey emotional intensity, making sure that his voiceover keeps pace with the film itself:

The scene is set up as a long shot behind a pile of rubble, and we see the two characters face-to-face. But as soon as we get into it, the action is going to cut much closer. We're going to see, in fact, a series of alternating close-ups of their two faces getting closer and closer on them until we finally see Edie's face in extreme close-up, her white gloves covering her mouth and her eyes trying to take in the shock of what Terry is trying to tell her...The point of the scene here is to show us the emotional reaction of the characters as he confesses to Edie. And to that purpose, the sound track is what's really driving the scene. The pile driver's hammering away at us; the noises are building up in intensity, covering over their words, drowning out everything that they say, but adding this powerful emotional overlay to the scene.

Valasek's clips are about three minutes long -- ample, but still within the boudaries of fair use -- and students can choose to watch them with or without Valesek's voiceovers. They can also read the transcripts of Valasek's comments seperately from watching the clip.


Additional features of the site include a hyperlinked glossary of film terms (pictured above), linked assignments, and an online forum in which students analyze the films they watch -- a necessary addition, since class discussion takes place entirely online.

At present, the primary limitations of The American Film seem to be those of WebCT itself. As a piece of software, WebCT is designed more for efficacy than elegance, and the clunky interface can be headache-producing: it's also the case that students who have all of their classes on the platform sometimes experience "WebCT blur," the feeling that all of their courses are seeping together. Of course, Valasek could move past these limitations by developing the multimedia content on this site even further; instead of embedding it in a WebCT platform, he could potentially create a DVD with his film analyses and discussion for broader use as an introductory film text. I'm curious as to whether anyone working in WebCT has considered the fact that they, like Valasek, are already well on the way to producing a digital textbook. Now that such labor-intensive multimedia learning objects are being created with increasingly frequency for course-specific situations, there needs to be more conversation about how to "free" such scholarly effort for broader academic use.

Posted by lisa lynch at December 29, 2005 1:24 PM