Rewriting the script on film studies during a global pandemic

- December 15, 2020

Shannon Brownlee. associate director of the Cinema and Media Studies program at Dal, adapted her film studies classes this year to ensure more opportunities for shared viewing and discussion. (Clem Onojeghuo photo/Pexels)
Shannon Brownlee. associate director of the Cinema and Media Studies program at Dal, adapted her film studies classes this year to ensure more opportunities for shared viewing and discussion. (Clem Onojeghuo photo/Pexels)

As the fall term winds down, Shannon Brownlee is reflective about the challenges and rewards of teaching in 2020.   

One observation that jumps to mind is how well her students have adapted to the new learning environment.

“The work the students have been producing this semester has been just as good — sometimes better — than in previous semesters, so I can say with confidence that students are succeeding in online learning,” says. Dr. Brownlee, associate director of the Cinema and Media Studies program at Dal and an associate professor with a cross appointment in Gender and Women's Studies.

“I know it’s been tough for many of them, but I’ve also seen a great deal of creativity, excellent research, and insightfulness.”  

While she’s proud of the work done this term, she is the first to admit there have been growing pains, too. Like many instructors at Dalhousie, she has been figuring out what pedagogical strategies to use in different learning situations through trial and error.

A collaborative learning experience

Dr. Brownlee taught two courses this term, and her experiences with both have been markedly different. “I’ve struggled with one class more than the other,” she says. “This has been partly due to the nature of the content, partly because I was doing a lot of new class prep, and partly because I didn’t think as creatively as I could have about how to adapt that content to an online environment.”

While most people might think that studying film would be ideal as a solitary pursuit, Dr. Brownlee says that discussion and collaboration are essential for learning. “Cinema as an art form — and film teaching and learning — are very collective, collaborative experiences. Watching film in a room full of students, hearing everyone’s reactions, and discussing it immediately afterwards has always been an important part of my pedagogy.”

Read more: Faculty members reflect on what's been keeping them motivated in their teaching this year

Dr. Brownlee says that, initially, her class structure wasn’t set up for this kind of synchronous discussion. “Looking back, it would have been better to have a couple of synchronous sessions a week during which we watched more of the films themselves so we could all discuss them immediately after viewing them.

“A whole room full of people will always have more insights and ideas about the films than I can generate with only one brain, and I relied too much on my own views and didn’t leave enough room for students to learn from each other.”

Dr. Brownlee made adaptations in her class structure to optimize participation, including synchronous viewing and interaction within Brightspace. “Watching film in synchronous sessions has been imperative, as have the small groups/breakout groups and then full class discussions after a clip. There’s really no replacement for that for me and for many students."

Mixing it up

Dr. Brownlee says her greatest successes have come from combining an array of pedagogical strategies in a course. “To me, what’s worked best has been to have an eclectic range of ways of teaching and learning this semester. A mixture of asynchronous lectures, online quizzes (with lots of attempts and feedback) to help students digest the lectures, and different options for participation: synchronous sessions for those who learn well that way but other options for those in far-flung time zones or those who learn better independently.

Another key to success has been getting feedback from students. “I’ve asked regularly how things are going, sometimes informally, and sometimes formally: the Brightspace survey tool was really helpful for that.  

“The difficulties that emerged at the beginning of the semester were different from those at the end. At the beginning, what I heard was mainly shock at the workload: none of us had anticipated how much time things would take in an online context, and I know that I, for one, hadn’t designed the course with that in mind. Some students also struggled with keeping track of due dates without the regular, in-class reminders.”  

Dr. Brownlee recommends using tools in Brightspace, like Intelligent Agents, to help keep track of work and deadlines. “I use the calendar tool in my classes, but I only started using Brightspace’s Intelligent Agents after some students had already run into problems,” she says

“Towards the end of the semester, the difficulties were more about lack of contact. The main thing this semester has driven home for me is how much students learn from each other, whether it’s because someone else asked a clarification question about an assignment, or because someone had a brilliant comment.”

Advice for students

Dr. Brownlee is happy to share her experience to benefit other faculty, but she also has words of wisdom for students.  

“Schedule your time as if going to school is a full-time job,” she says.  

She offered the following advice to help students in this endeavour:

  • Give yourself a structure. “For example, schedule a block of an hour on Monday mornings for listening to online lectures for one class, and another block for doing the readings."

  • Optimize Brightspace. She suggests setting up notifications on Brightspace so that you can see when a professor has made an announcement about a class or when new content has been posted. “Be careful with your notifications, though — unless the course demands it, I would highly recommend not getting notifications every time someone posts to a discussion board. Be selective so you don’t get overwhelmed.” Notifications can be found under your name in the top right corner.

  • Plan for breaks. “Schedule time for getting away from screens, going for a walk, hanging out with friends in person (insofar as the provincial restrictions on gatherings allow, of course). You’ll work more efficiently if you give yourself breaks, and you’ll be happier doing it. Breaks are not ‘cheating’ or ’slacking.’ They’re necessary for your health.”


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